When I was five, I would talk to my mother while she was in the bath. When she stood to get out, the water fell from her, her skin pink from the heat. Her body was miraculous to me. Women’s bodies are miraculous, with the things they can do, but I didn’t know any of that then. I just knew that she was soft and perfect, and mine.
By the time my mother developed breast cancer, I was 30. She was double that age and there was an ocean between us: I was married and living in New York, so when the news came, I couldn’t hold her to me, or be a practical support. I sat on my bed and cried. The next time I saw her, it was all over. One breast removed and carefully reconstructed. The cancer gone. My husband asked me, as we approached my parents in the airport, whether it was OK to give my mum a hug. The surgery was recent; I wasn’t sure. But it was OK. She seemed the same.
It was only five years later that I found my lump. I didn’t have a grownup daughter: my son was a toddler and my daughter was unborn, curled inside, half-gestated. A month later, in May 2016, I was wheeled into theatre and my surgeon cut the tumour out. The surgeon was pregnant too, her rounded belly tight against her scrubs. It helped that we had that in common. It felt like a reason for her to take extra care with me; with us.
I knew I should be grateful that the cancer was gone, but when I pulled my bandages off, alone in the bathroom, and saw what was left of my right breast, I wept. I looked uneven, unsightly. An ugly scar where my nipple used to be.
My daughter was born into this whirl of sadness. She was early and she had to fight her own battles to live. I stood under a long, hot shower a few hours after giving birth to her, washing away the blood, willing her to survive. Day by day, she gathered strength, while I began to have poison pumped into me in three-week cycles.
There is a genetic element to my family’s breast cancer story. My mother and I are not just unlucky; we are predisposed. When I was told that my chances of getting breast cancer again were about 50%, I asked the doctors to take away my breasts and my ovaries. I didn’t need to think it over. I had my ovaries removed in November, 2016, and a double mastectomy the following January. Now my body is more scarred than ever, with angry red lines across my abdomen and my breasts, where I have been cut and cut again.
Now my daughter is five, and she talks to me as I step out of the shower. What does she make of my unconventional body? How will it shape her sense of what a woman should be? There are no women like me on the billboards or the TV adverts. No women whose bodies have been hacked and then sewn back together, whose bodies have turned on them.
A woman’s body is a powerful thing, in both good and bad ways. I fear that my daughter’s breasts could turn out to be rotten, like mine, like her grandmother’s. That she may need to have them removed. Or, worse still, that she may choose not to, and I will worry every minute that she will become cancer’s victim.
I know that, eventually, my daughter will start to understand that there are expectations of her, and of all women. I know that her attitude towards her body will be altered by them – but I hope it will be altered more significantly by my mother and me, by our scarred and miraculous bodies. By our hearts that are still beating, telling her that she is enough, however she looks, however she is. She is enough.
Laura Pearson is the author of Missing Pieces, Nobody’s Wife and I Wanted You To Know.